I believe it was warrior-poet Edie Brickell who screeched "I'm not aware of too many things, but I know what I know if you know what I mean," in her chart-topping ditty, "What I am."
That song isn't just one of the many embarrassing mainstays on my iPod top-100 playlist, it's also kind of my mantra in general. I know shamefully little on so many important things. Politics? Nope. And I graduated San Diego State, the Harvard of Northwest Mexico, as a Poly Sci major. Art? I can probably name like five famous artists, all long dead. Famous works of literature? I've read precious few, outside of Shakespeare. Modern literature? Similarly unversed, yet I've read most of the trashy populist stuff from Bret Easton Ellis, John Grisham, Chuck Palahnuik and Dan Brown. I'm not even sure if I could do my own taxes or figure out my health care stuff if I had to. I'm basically a man-boy.
But I do consider myself as somewhat of an expert on the Spurs, if for no reason other than Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule. Between all the Spurs games I've watched, all the words I've written about them, all the interviews and articles I've read and watched, I've easily hit that number. I dare say I know more about this team than I do about the extended members of my family. (My mother will tell you that's nothing to be proud of.)
So with that lengthy prologue out of the way, I am asking you all to trust me -- or to at least give me the benefit of the doubt -- on my one simple request of Gregg Popovich this season, because it's a message I've spent all off-season weighing the pros and cons of and a conclusion that I wasn't necessarily comfortable reaching:
Pop, please, for the love of The Flying Spaghetti Monster, bury Matt Bonner on the bench this season. Put him in a suit, encase him in a glass box with a "Break only in case of extreme injury epidemic" sticker on it, or simply ship him out of town for any offer higher than a $20 gift card from H.E.B.
It's time, Pop. It's finally time.
If you've been paying any attention whatsoever, you've surely come to realize that Bonner, our beloved "Red Rocket," should more aptly be nicknamed "red herring," because he's long been one of the biggest teases in the NBA. He's one of the league's best bargains during the regular season, a statistical tour-de-force because he does a few things well the analytic community really appreciates:
A) He pretty much only shoots threes and strokes them at a percentage to be among the league leaders every year
B) He hardly ever turns the ball over
C) He doesn't foul a whole lot on defense
D) He is actually a pretty decent post defender
E) He is, year in and year out, a plus-minus Beast
Yet all that disappears when it matters, in the playoffs, because inevitably the Spurs end up facing a squad with a bunch of freakish athletes and he can't play against them because (mainly) he doesn't match up against anybody on defense and he can't get his shot off on offense.
To Bonner's credit, he used to be completely useless against anybody in the playoffs, but the emergence of Tiago Splitter at least helped him somewhat because there was a legit second big on the roster aside from Tim Duncan. So Bonner wasn't needed to be a rugged defensive presence and he had some help on the boards. Still, it must be mentioned that the Lakers were a shell of themselves in the opening playoff series last year. Pau Gasol was clearly playing hurt and Dwight Howard had mentally checked out by Game 2.
Yes, Bonner helped somewhat against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals, but their bigs aren't exactly the most athletic duo to begin with, the putrid outside shooting of their wings allowed the Spurs to double the post with impunity, and the Duncan we saw last year was markedly different than the Duncan who appeared to be on his last legs in 2011.
The main difference between last season's playoff Bonner and the Bonner of playoffs past was that he shot a heck of a lot better, which really wasn't surprising because any statistician will tell you that clutch shooting really isn't a thing and that whatever playoff slumps Bonner had in previous seasons were just random clumps of small samples. Last April and May, his shooting reverted to his career norms.
The problem is that he was still an abysmal rebounder. How abysmal, you ask? He scooped up a whopping 15 rebounds in 102 minutes against the Lakers. That's 7.05 rebounds per 48 minutes, which is worse than what Brook Lopez averages for the Nets. Against the Grizzlies, he collected 10 boards in 71 minutes, a rate of 6.76 over 48. Cory Joseph, who logged 37 minutes in that series, had nine rebounds. Manu Ginobili averaged more than double the boards that Bonner did.
When you take the time to expand to the larger sample of the 82-game 2012-13 regular season, you see that Bonner had, his worst season as a Spur, despite shooting a blazing 48.7 percent from the field and 44.2 percent from downtown. His already pathetic defensive rebound percentage dropped to a career-low 12.5, while his overall rebound rate plummeted to 8.2, by far the worst of his career. His turnovers shot up, his PER was a career-worst 11.8 (and 12.7 in the playoffs, not much better) and his win-shares-per-48-minutes sank for the fifth straight season, to .133. Bonner's rebounding has sunk to such dark depths that he's become basically unplayable as a second big, no matter how well he shoots and how well the center alongside him hoovers the rebounds.
Look, we already know that Bonner can't play against Miami, Oklahoma City or Golden State. You can also add Indiana and Chicago into that mix in the East (look at Bonner's line in this game, while ignoring how awesome Kawhi Leonard was for a second, and see how many offensive boards the Bulls had) and probably the Rockets and Clippers as well, since they're two more Western powers who figure to play a lot of small-ball when it matters. Other teams aren't stupid, they all watch the film too and everybody saw the best way to attack the Spurs is to go small and take Splitter out of the game, or to at least isolate his playing time away from Duncan's. It's nearly impossible to score on the Spurs' starting unit with a traditional lineup because almost every team in the league has a second big who is an uncoordinated, unskilled buffoon. People are gonna try to stretch them out, pure and simple.
And Pop, no dummy himself, knows this. It's why he uses (and trusts) Bonner a lot less in the playoffs than in the regular season.
In the playoffs three bigs are usually more than enough for the Spurs, especially since Leonard has shown the potential to be one of the most devastating small-ball fours in the league. For the fourth big, in the rare times we need one against Memphis or maybe the Lakers, should they somehow sneak in as the eighth seed, I think Aron Baynes' physicality and ruggedness or Jeff Ayres' overall athleticism would bring more to the table than Bonner would.
Obviously, over the course of an 82-game regular season the Spurs are gonna need to use their entire 14 or 15 man roster. There will be injuries, slumps, and stretches of the schedule where they have a FOGAFINI and what have you. There will inevitably be times where Bonner will have to see the court, just to fill minutes. All I'm saying is in a perfect world, he'd be the sixth big on the depth chart, and really seventh if you count Leonard. And sixth bigs usually wear suits.
Here's the bottom line. We already know how the story is gonna end for the Red Mamba. Come the playoffs, in a do-or-die series against a team with a superduperstar alien or two, he won't play. So why waste regular season minutes on him when the Spurs could instead use those minutes to build chemistry and experience for the young bigs on the roster who actually have a chance of contributing in the playoffs? Even if only for spot minutes. If giving Ayres and Baynes each about 350 of Bonner's regular season minutes helps them become two percent more valuable by April, won't it be well worth it?
Bonner's had his chance. He's had several chances. He just cannot buy a rebound.
If there's anything Spurs fans have learned from last season, it's that rebounds are pretty darn important.